North Korea has already sent millions of artillery rounds to Russia, warns South Korea

North Korea has shipped as many as 6,700 containers with potentially millions of rounds of artillery shells to Russia since talks between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un in September last year, Seoul says.

South Korea’s defence minister said the exact contents of the containers could not be known, but that they likely contained either three million 152mm artillery shells or 500,000 122mm rounds.

“It could possibly be a mix of the two, and you can say that at least several million shells have been sent,” Shin Won-sik said.

Russia is believed to have started receiving large deliveries of munitions from North Korea after the two leaders held a summit in Russia’s far east last year. Washington and Seoul have accused Pyongyang and Moscow of trading arms which are then being deployed in Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.

North Korean munitions factories producing artillery shells for Russia are now operating “at full swing” to supply weapons to Russia, the defence minister told reporters at a media briefing.

Hundreds of other North Korean munition factories are running at around 30 per cent of their capacity due to a lack of raw materials and electricity, the minister said without specifying the source of this information.

The Ukrainian Air Force said on Tuesday that Russian forces had fired an unspecified number of North Korean-provided Kn-23, four Kh-59 cruise and one Kh-31P anti-radar along with Iskander-M ballistic missiles. It also used 13 Shahed drones between the night of 26 February and 27 February.

In exchange, North Korea is receiving much-needed food and other necessities, South Korea’s defence chief has said.

The volume of containers sent from Russia to North Korea are approximately 30 per cent larger than those shipped from North Korea to Russia over the same period, the minister said.

“It seems that food accounts for the largest proportion (of shipments from Russia), which is believed to have stabilised food prices in North Korea, with other necessities also included," Mr Shin said. The hermit kingdom has been reeling under a heavy inflation and a chronic food crisis which worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Both countries have denied exchanging arms but Mr Putin and his North Korean ally publicly pledged to strengthen their military cooperation.

"It remains uncertain to what degree Russia will offer technology related to aircraft and ground equipment sought by North Korea. However, if Russia continues to receive more munitions from North Korea, the scope of technology transfer could increase," Mr Shin said.

The South Korean official added that North Korea likely received satellite-related technology from Russia. Pyongyang recently put its first spy satellite into orbit and vowed to launch three more this year, boosting its aerospace ambitions.

Mr Shin, however, doubted North’s claim that its spy satellite orbiting the Earth is capable of photographing major South Korean and US military sites. “It shows no signs of functioning and is merely orbiting without activity,” he said.

On Friday, the US State Department said that North Korea has delivered more than 10,000 containers of ammunition or related materials to Russia since September.

“Russia has imported shipping containers carrying military-related cargo from the DPRK [official name for North Korea] through Vostochny Port for use in the Ukraine conflict since early October 2023,” the State Department said in a statement.

In October last year, satellite images showed a sharp increase in rail traffic between Russia and North Korea in likely signs of Mr Kim helping his ally Mr Putin by supplying munitions, a US think-tank had said, citing recent satellite photos.

Satellite images from 5 October showed a “dramatic and unprecedented level of freight railcar traffic” at the Tumangang rail facility, according to Beyond Parallel, a website run by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.